Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Press and the “Get Under It!” Cue

by Mark Rippetoe | August 24, 2017

getting under the press

Imagine if you will a lifter attempting a new 5RM for the press. The first two reps go great, crisp hip drive and rebound and a vertical bar path produce plenty of bar speed to easily lock the reps out at the top. Rep three slows markedly, and rep four is a genuine struggle. Rep five is going to be a real grinder, and the lifter knows it.

He readies himself, draws in a huge breath and tightens up his legs and his abs. He drives his hips forward and they snap back into neutral, launching the bar up out of the rack position. As the bar drives up past his face he lays back again slightly to allow his arms room to straighten out a little under the bar, but it’s not enough. As the bar passes his forehead it grinds to a halt. His arms have reached their force production limit. There’s 200 pounds on the bar, and in this motionless instant he is producing exactly 200 pounds. If you’re watching this take place, either as the lifter’s coach or just a spectator, what cue do you give to the lifter to help him finish this rep and claim his new PR? 

Many will use a “Get under it!” cue at this moment, but it is not entirely helpful here with the bar in limbo at the sticking point. Driving the chest and torso back under the bar as the bar passes the forehead is an essential part of the press, but the rate of driving the chest forward must occur commensurate with the rate the lifter is able to drive the bar up. In other words, a fast easy rep will truly have the chest slamming forward back into position under the bar. A slow grinding rep will have the chest moving forward gradually, eventually coming back into position under the bar as the bar reaches lockout. I have yet to see a truly heavy press completed otherwise. 

But a stuck rep is different. He would very much like to get under the bar and finish this PR attempt, but the bar is heavy, and it cares not for the desires of the lifter. His arms have reached their limit, and they are the bottleneck. Will slamming his chest back under the bar help him save this lift? Can he actually do this? Let’s do a little thought experiment to examine this possibility. 

Set the pins on your rack so that the bar is a couple inches above your forehead, and load the bar up with 500 pounds – an isometric load for you. Set your feet under the bar, and set your grip in your normal press position. Lean back a little into your layback position, and drive up on the bar as hard as you can with your hands. Now, drive your chest forward under the bar as hard as you can. What happens? Nothing. It just sits there, moderately amused at your petty efforts. Unless you consciously relax your elbows and shoulders, you cannot move your chest forward, and if you consciously relax elbows and shoulders in a real press, you have bailed out of the rep. 

This is the same thing that happens when your back will not pull a deadlift that is too heavy for your grip to hold. It's a protective feedback mechanism your clever body uses to keep from hurting itself. If a link in the kinetic chain fails, the whole movement fails, and it may not be immediately apparent which link is guilty. 

And at the 5th rep of a limit set, your position under the bar is almost always going to be different than your carefully selected partial pin press position – you're going to be in the wrong position, with too much distance between bar and shoulder. This happens due to leg, hip, and truck fatigue from the 4 previous reps, and is the normal mechanical problem you run into at the end of a heavy set. It's a problem you can't solve, because now you are limited by your arm strength. You can most definitely generate more than 200 pounds of vertical force by bringing your chest forward and your hips back underneath him – within the reps you complete. The bar speed tells you this. But when you get stuck, your arms and shoulders are holding you away from the bar. A better mechanical position – your shoulders closer to the bar – can't be obtained without some elbow flexion or some shoulder extension, and both are locked in place isometrically. You fail the rep because 1.) the damn thing is too heavy, 2.) because it's too heavy and you're fatigued, you're out of position, 3.) your arms are locking you out of a better position, and, almost paradoxically, 4.) your arm strength also limits the weight you can press from a bad mechanical position. 

Due to the nature of the press, with the kinetic chain starting at the hands and extending all the way to the floor, the force must be transmitted through your arms before it can aid in driving the bar up. In addition to transferring force into the bar at the end of the kinetic chain, the hands and arms are also tasked with keeping the bar over the body’s center of balance, the mid-foot. With your arms already producing and transmitting force at maximum capacity, the ability to generate more force with the trunk and hips is irrelevant – the arms are the limiting factor. They are locked in a position that prevents better mechanics, and the set is over. 

So, you simply cannot “dive” under the bar to save a rep that is stuck somewhere between your forehead and lockout. Diving cannot take place if the bar is stuck. The chest must come forward at the same time the elbows extend and shoulders flex towards lockout, and when you are stuck, this can't happen. Yelling “Get under it!!!!!!” to a lifter who is laboring at the sticking point of the press is the equivalent to screaming “Up! Up!! Up!!!” on a stuck 1RM squat attempt. 

A cue that prompts the lifter to focus on the upper body musculature and continue driving up hard with the arms is required to move the bar through the sticking point, as is a focus on staying close to the bar. “Shrug!” and “Elbows!” can both be useful for continuing the drive up, and “Abs!” or “Tight!” or “Hit your nose!” can cue better positioning. And as the bar again gains upward momentum the “Get under it!” cue is now relevant, as the lifter must drive the chest forward to keep pace with the arms. 

In summary, when we press we must drive the chest and torso forward under the bar as the shoulders and elbows drive up. A failure to get back under the bar in a timely fashion calls for a cue to remind the lifter to do so. However, a heavy grinding press rep will have the chest slowly moving back under the bar. In the instance where the bar nearly comes to a stop above the lifters head, a cue to focus on continuing to drive up as hard as possible with the arms and shoulders becomes increasingly important, with a follow up cue to get under the bar occasionally necessary after upward momentum of the bar has been restored.

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